Sparing the Midnight Oil

So many startup leaders bemoan that their team seems to “lack a sense of urgency.” As a freelance coder, clients would regularly comment I was getting more done in two days a week than their FTEs. Is that (solely) due to my awesome coding skillz? Nope. The path to making your team more badass often starts with realigning your leadership style and priorities.

The Wrong Yardstick

The problem starts with looking at different symptoms as opposed to the issue’s core. For example, you might be unsatisfied with the “hours” people are working or the fact that it can be hard to reach certain people during the weekend. Perhaps project estimates routinely seem excessively high, thus skewing many decisions. And, of course, there’s focusing on the wrong things, like titles, perks, and fancy tech.

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When I hear this from executives, they know it isn’t “popular” and often don’t say it publicly. That only adds to their frustration because they feel like the team isn’t operating with urgency and that saying something might even make things worse. Don’t focus on the symptoms; go for something more radical (which means going to the matter’s root).

Aligning Leadership

As with many issues I help clients with, most of the problems can be addressed by helping yourself and your leadership team be better equipped to generate urgency and focus on what matters. I don’t care how many hours people work or about extra perks if the results are there. The entirety of your leadership paradigm should be based on getting things done first.

As a freelancer, I got things done precisely because I was disconnected from the burdens of the company’s culture. Focusing on promotions or politics? Couldn’t care less. Useless meetings? When you bill hourly, people mind you not going into meetings unless really needed. When you constantly consider the value of someone’s time, you’re more likely to cut fluff requirements and be less strict about bloated processes being followed. Guess what? You can do that more often.

I am not an Elon Musk fan, but at the core, a lot of the concepts he uses to build effective teams are similar to those I use (though he tends to crank things to 500 and push it too far, that’s a different matter). You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is for the team to realize what genuinely matters.

Manifesting Urgency

Consider the following suggestions and choose a couple to start with. Don’t think you can do all these together, as you’d simply overwhelm everyone. Deep changes come with consistency and time.

  • Strip your meetings to the necessary core. Cut all the needless recurring meetings that turn into zombies where people keep attending, yet no one is sure why. Consider making each meeting take up half the time and see what happens.
  • Value scrappiness. Startups are awesome precisely because they can move faster than organizations with 100x the resources. However, too often, we try to act as if we were much bigger already, thus limiting the team’s effectiveness.
  • Set goals and measure teams and leaders by results, not how hard they worked.
  • Stop treating people like a family and having weird “values” that don’t belong in a capitalist company.
  • Cut work ruthlessly. When you do the core that actually generates value, people see the urgency in delivering it fast. That’s contrary to bloated features with lots of added niceties that dilute the value of work. This requires cooperation with product leadership and creating a clear strategy as an executive team.
  • Stop praising process and formalities. Not every little thing requires an explicit protocol or SOP written. Meticulously defining IC levels where you’re barely hanging on to people you’ve already got or not delivering is delusional.
  • Provide the team with autonomy and declare that they should allow themselves to ask for forgiveness after the fact instead of permission in advance.
  • Normalize mistakes. When the management team scowls over any delay or issue, people will learn they shouldn’t be creative but stick to what they know. They won’t come up with stretch plans but buffer estimates, so they’re never on the hook. They won’t join risky projects, preferring boring tasks that are “safe.”

Let’s make coding fun again.